[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers for the Season 1 finale of Star Trek: Picard, “Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 2.”]
The list of characters that Isa Briones got to play in Season 1 of Star Trek: Picard doubled over the course of the final two episodes. Since nearly the beginning of the series, it’d been known that the young woman who died violently shortly after meeting the retired Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) had an identical twin sister, one who eventually connected with Picard on his quest to figure out the mysteries behind her creation, as a synthetic human.
On the surface, though, Soji seemed totally human, only discovering her true artificial nature late into the season—which meant that the reveal of her other “sister” Sutra, fully aware and confident about her synth status, was a shock both to audiences as well as the actress playing her.
Briones, a theater actress who had been playing Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds in in the touring company of Hamilton when she got the chance to join the cast, was a relative newcomer to television, and spoke with Paste about how acting opposite Patrick Stewart ended up not being as scary as you might think, what it was like to deal with the finale’s heaviest twist, and how her surprise musical cameo at the end of the episode came about.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Paste: To go back to the beginning of all this, what was the experience of coming to this show like? What was the audition process?
Isa Briones: Well, when I auditioned, I was on tour with Hamilton at the time, so I was auditioning remotely through self tapes. And it all kind of snowballed. I feel like every moment of coming to the show was elevated every second. First, I didn’t even know what I was [auditioning for], then suddenly I find out it was Star Trek and then I figure out that it was with Patrick Stewart, then realizing I was [playing] twins. It all just kept building. It was a really crazy whirlwind experience, but amazing. I mean, I came from musical theater. So it was very, a much different experience for me.
Paste: Given how many Trek actors have a lot of theater experience, the difference between having to say very technical lines of dialogue and having to do, say, a Shakespearean monologue isn’t that much.
Briones: Yeah, the only difference is that you’re on a spaceship, and that is a pretty, pretty big one.
Paste: What was more daunting to you, being told that you’re playing multiple characters, or being told you’re acting opposite Sir Patrick Stewart?
Briones: I mean, Patrick was in my final callback, so I kind of got thrown into that extreme circumstance right off the bat. Of course it was nerve-wracking, knowing that I was going into that room knowing that he’s going to be there, but as soon as I walked in, he… He’s just the coolest dude. He’s this amazing actor and he elevates everyone that he’s acting with. So that is just a given. But the fact that he is the most generous and coolest person makes everything 100 times easier, and he immediately makes you feel at home and remind you like, hey, we’re just playing. We are having fun—like, this is our job and how amazing that is that we get to do it together.
With finding others playing multiple roles, that came kind of gradually, I think, to when they told me I was going to be twins; and I finally read the script and realized, oh, gosh, is kind of done pretty quickly. So, there wasn’t a lot of pressure on playing two roles at the same time since the storyline ends pretty quickly, but finding out about Sutra came mid-season. I think we were filming Episode 7 when I found out about that, so there was never any like anticipation or build-up of oh how do I make this work. I don’t know, I’m nervous it was just like, “okay now you do this, now you do this,” and you just have to keep up. You know, when you’re in the swing of it, is there’s no time to overthink it.
Paste: The nice thing with Sutra is that she’s a very distinct character in comparison. How much input did you get to have into her hair or makeup or costume design?
Briones: Yeah, they want our input, which is really wonderful. They definitely knew that they wanted the synths to have a distinct look, but they definitely ran every option by us, and I was like let’s just go for it with this one—she can have the long hair, she can have the eyes. We can go in a completely different direction—which also helps with character development, just like the acting aspect of it.
I definitely feel, as a theatre actor, that when you’re rehearsing in your street clothes in a rehearsal room, it can be a little hard to find the character. But then, once you’re in costume, and the lights are on, everything is happening, you naturally fall into the character. And I feel like that’s exactly what happened with Sutra, because it is such a distinct look and character.
Paste: Let’s talk about the montage where Picard dies—one of those sequences where, as people who watch television are likely aware, he’s going to come back in some way. But we still have this sequence where people spend time mourning him. From your perspective as an actor, what was it like digging into this?
Briones: It’s complicated. I didn’t really watch a lot of Star Trek as a child. I’m kicking myself now that I haven’t, but once I got the show, I started watching and became a huge fan. Coming into that and knowing the legacy and knowing how much this show as a franchise and specifically, this captain has meant to so many people throughout generations. Just understanding the weight of that and knowing what it would be like as a long time fan to watch your favorite captain, maybe your even your father figure die on screen… I can’t quite know what that’s like, for those fans out there.
But I can know what it’s like as a person, to lose someone, and I think for all of us it was a really beautiful thing to kind of dig into that, that discovery, that grappling with mortality. So that was really a beautiful acting challenge that really hits home and cuts deep for anyone who has lost someone important to them […] and also to see our fellow actors doing so as well. Michelle Hurd gives an incredible performance in that, and all of us watching each other going through that … that was a really beautiful experience.
Paste: Is this something where you just have to put out of your head the fact that this is not the permanent end for the character that you’re mourning?
Briones: Although we’re acting, and our minds know that we’re acting, our bodies don’t quite know that we’re acting. So even when you’re watching someone acting like they’re dying, your body has like a true real response to it. It doesn’t even matter at that point that you know how it’s going to end, that you know that he’s not completely dead. Your body is going through watching a loved one die, basically. So it really makes the acting of it easier, because your body just goes on that journey.
Paste: To wrap things up: You end up covering Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” for the final moments of the finale. How did that come about?
Briones: I didn’t find out about this until the LA premiere [in January]. I was walking around the after-party, and I was really hungry because I hadn’t eaten anything all day. So I was chasing down a caterer and mid-chase, Jeff Russo, our incredible composer tapped me on the shoulder and was being very cryptic: “Did [executive producer] Alex Kurtzman tell you about the thing?” I said no, and then he’s like, “oh God, never mind,” and walked away.
Then a few minutes later, he came back and said, “okay, Alex said I can tell you, we have this arrangement of ‘Blue Skies’ and we would love for you to sing it.” That’s where it all started. We got to record it at the Warner Brothers soundstage, on the Eastwood stage with a whole orchestra. It was really old school, and it was such a special moment, and such a special song to bring back specifically.
[While recording], I got to see a rough cut of what the song would be playing over, which was perfect because the song lines up perfectly with what’s going on in this really monumental moment in the series. Getting to watch the scenes that it was going to play over, while I was singing, was bringing me to tears.
Liz Shannon Miller is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor, and has been talking about television on the Internet since the very beginnings of the Internet. She recently spent five years as TV Editor at Indiewire, and her work has also been published by The New York Times, Vulture, Variety, the AV Club, the Hollywood Reporter, IGN, The Verge, and Thought Catalog. She is also a produced playwright, a host of podcasts, and a repository of “X-Files” trivia. Follow her on Twitter at @lizlet.
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